Toll in Quebec frac’d oil train derailment sure to rise, Traumatized survivors braced for more bad news inspectors finally cleared to enter charred site

Catastrophe Lac Mégantic 06/07/13 by Adrien Aubert

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews resigns by Josh Wingrove, July 8, 2013, The Globe and Mail
Mr. Toews resigned Monday saying he plans to leave “public life” and “pursue opportunities in the private sector.” He said his resignation – as an MP, as regional minister for Manitoba and as a cabinet minister – will take effect Tuesday. … It takes a great amount of consideration to “step out of office when one still enjoys the support of those who elected them,” he said. … Before entering politics, Mr. Toews was a lawyer, serving as a Crown prosecutor and in other roles with the province. He taught law before running provincially, winning a seat and being appointed soon after to cabinet. He then made the jump to federal politics. … Asked about cabinet shuffle timing, one MP said Monday that “all bets are off” after the Quebec train disaster. [Emphasis added]

Updated: Tough-on-crime Toews quits government for private sector by Gloria Galloway and Josh Wingrove, July 8, 2013 Updated, The Globe and Mail
Mr. Toews resigned on Monday to “pursue opportunities in the private sector.” His resignation as a cabinet minister, MP and regional minister for Manitoba takes effect on Tuesday. … Mr. Toews is best known as a hard-liner on crime. As justice minister, he imposed mandatory minimum sentences and reduced the use of house arrest. He also killed the long-gun registry, raised the age of consent and boosted efforts to deport criminals who are in Canada illegally. But his attempt to give police power to monitor Internet users sparked a storm of protest. It also prompted a Liberal staff member to post salacious details online about Mr. Toews’ messy divorce from his wife of 30 years. … Before entering federal politics, Mr. Toews was a lawyer and a provincial MLA. In one provincial campaign, he exceeded spending limits by $7,500 and was fined $500. Manitoba Progressive Conservative leader Brian Pallister, elected federally with Mr. Toews in 2000, said the departing MP helped spur “a resurgence of Conservatism” in Canada.  [Emphasis added]

Toll in Quebec oil train derailment and explosion sure to rise, Traumatized survivors of an oil train derailment that wiped out the heart of a small town braced for more bad news as inspectors were finally cleared to enter the charred site and look for remains late Monday, more than two days after the disaster that killed at least 13 people by Benjamin Shingler and Rob Gillies, Associated Press, Associated Press writers Gillies and Charmaine Noronha contributed from Toronto. James MacPherson contributed from Bismarck, North Dakota. July 8, 2013, Grand Forks Herald
LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) — Traumatized survivors of an oil train derailment that wiped out the heart of a small town braced for more bad news as inspectors were finally cleared to enter the charred site’s epicenter and look for remains late Monday, more than two days after the disaster that killed at least 13 people. A total of 50 were missing and the death toll was sure to rise. Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard said eight more bodies had been found in the wreckage after firefighters doused the flames and cooled down some of the oil tankers that were in danger of exploding. Five bodies were found over the weekend, and police would not say where the newly discovered ones were, for fear of upsetting families.

All but one of the train’s 73 tanker cars were carrying oil when they came loose early Saturday, sped downhill nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) into the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border, and derailed. At least five of the cars exploded. Maude Verrault, a waitress at downtown’s Musi-Cafe, was outside smoking when she spotted the blazing train barreling toward her. “I’ve never seen a train moving so fast in my life, and I saw flames … Then someone screamed ‘the train is going to derail!’ and that’s when I ran,” Verrault said. She said she felt the heat scorch her back as she ran from the explosion, but was too terrified to look back. The rail tankers involved in the derailment are known as DOT-111 and have a history of puncturing during accidents, the lead Transportation Safety Board investigator told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Monday. TSB investigator Donald Ross said Canada’s TSB has gone on record saying that it would like to see improvements on these tankers, though he acknowledged it’s too early to say whether a different or modified tanker would have avoided this weekend’s tragedy. The DOT-111 is a staple of the American freight rail fleet. But its flaws have been noted as far back as a 1991 safety study. Among other things, its steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents, which almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment. “It’s too early to tell. There’s a lot of factors involved,” Ross said. “There’s a lot of energy here. The train came down on a fairly significant grade for 6.8 miles before it came into the town and did all the destruction it did.” He said the train was moving at 63 mph (101 kph) when it derailed.

The Saturday blasts destroyed about 30 buildings, including a public library and Musi-Cafe, a popular bar that was filled with revelers, and forced about a third of the town’s 6000 residents from their homes. Much of the area where the bar once stood was burned to the ground. Burned-out car frames dotted the landscape.

The derailment raised questions about the safety of Canada’s growing practice of transporting oil by train, and was sure to bolster arguments that a proposed oil pipeline running from Canada across the U.S. — one that Canadian officials badly want — would be safer. Raymond Lafontaine, whose son and two daughters-in-law were among the missing, said he was angry with what appeared to be lack of safety regulations. “We always wait until there’s a big accident to change things,” he said. “Well, today we’ve had a big accident, it’s one of the biggest ever in Canada.”

The fires sparked by the exploding tanks burned for two days, impeding investigators from reaching some of the “hot spots,” including the area near the destroyed Musi-Cafe. “It’s a zone that we’ve started to work on and we’ll work on it more in the hours to come,” Richard said. The area remained part of a criminal investigation and investigators were exploring all options, including the possibility that someone intentionally tampered with the train, Richard said.

Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel said the train was inspected the day before the accident in Montreal and no deficiencies were found. Lebel defended his government against criticisms it had cut back on rail safety measures. He said the rail remains a safe way to transport goods the vast majority of the time. Earlier Monday, Queen Elizabeth II expressed deep sadness over the disaster, saying in a message through the federal government that the loss of life “has shocked us all.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town Sunday and compared it to a war zone. The train’s owners said they believed brake failure was to blame. “Somehow those brakes were released, and that’s what is going to be investigated,” Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s vice president of marketing, told The Associated Press on Sunday. Officials were also looking at a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Ross also said the locomotive’s black box has been recovered, and investigators were looking into whether the air brakes or the hand break malfunctioned.

Meanwhile, crews were working to contain 100,000 liters (27,000 gallons) of light crude that spilled from the tankers and made its way into nearby waterways. There were fears it could flow into the St. Lawrence River all the way to Quebec City. Quebec’s Environment Ministry Spokesman Eric Cardinal said officials remained hopeful they could contain more than 85 per cent of the spill.

Local fire chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Lauzon said he could not provide additional details about that fire since it was in another jurisdiction. McGonigle confirmed that a fire was reported after the first engineer tied up and went to a local hotel. “We know that one of our employees from our engineering department showed up at the same time to assist the fire department. Exactly what they did is being investigated so the engineer wasn’t the last man to touch that train, we know that, but we’re not sure what happened,” McGonigle said. McGonigle said there was no reason to suspect any criminal or terror-related activity. The growing number of trains transporting crude oil in Canada and the United States had raised concerns of a major disaster. Harper, who has been pushing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has said railroad transit is more “environmentally challenging” than pipelines.

The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick on Canada’s East Coast. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries. The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada’s tracks this year — up from 500 carloads in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year. Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, has predicted such a catastrophe ever since crude began leaving the North Dakota by rail in 2008. “I think anybody could have foreseen this,” said Schafer. “It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen and it happened.” [Emphasis added]

13 dead, estimated 37 missing after runaway train explodes by Umaro Djau, Jonathan Mann, Pierre Meihlan and Deanna Hackney, July 8, 2013, CNN
The Quebec disaster came on the heels of a handful of other mishaps involving trains transporting oil in Canada, prompting some in the Canadian government to criticize what they say is a trend allowing rail lines to police themselves.

Among the incidents:

— Four Canadian Pacific rail cars carrying flammable petrochemicalsused to dilute oil derailed on a flood-damaged bridge spanning Calgary’s Bow River in June, according to the Calgary Herald.

— In another incident involving Canadian Pacific, five tankers containing oil derailed in rural Saskatchewan in May, spilling 575 barrels of crude, the Toronto Sun reported.

— The company also made headlines a month earlier when 22 rail cars derailed near White River, Ontario. Two of the cars leaked about 400 barrels — almost 17,000 gallons — of oil, The Globe and Mail in Toronto reported.

— Canadian Pacific was also involved in a stateside spill in March. Fourteen cars on a milelong, 94-car train derailed in western Minnesota, about 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis, spilling about 30,000 gallons of crude, Reuters reported.

“We’re seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail. There are attendant dangers involved in that,” Thomas Mulcair, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, told CTV. Mulcair criticized the government for “cutting transport safety in recent years.” Emile Therien, a former president of the nonprofit Canada Safety Council, added, “In the last 10 years, the railroads really do their own safety thing. There’s very little involvement from Transport Canada. Transport Canada’s got to get back into the game; there’s no doubt about it.” Lebel said railway companies are required by law to ensure the safe operation of their trains. He also said that since 2007, the number of train accidents in Canada has decreased by more than 22%.

The train involved in the Quebec incident was carrying oil from the Bakken oil formation in North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. According to the Association of American Railroads, Bakken is partially responsible for a dramatic increase in the amount of oil moved via train since 2008. As U.S. crude production has increased with advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, “much of the recent increases in crude oil output has moved by rail from production areas, such as North Dakota, that are not adequately served by pipelines,” according to the AAR, whose members include the major North American freight railroads.

In 2008, the group said, U.S. railroads were carrying about 9,500 rail carloads of crude oil. By 2011, it was 66,000. Last year, it was more than 200,000 carloads. A railcar carries about 700 barrels of oil, with 42 gallons per barrel.

Balls of shooting flames

Witnesses told CBC they heard five or six explosions Saturday in Lac-Megantic. One person saw the train’s first oil tanker tip over and yelled “run, run!” as he dashed toward a lake. the flames chased him to the edge of the water. “The fire was moving so quickly,” he said. “We saw balls of fire shooting out onto the water.” One woman told CTV that she got off work at a nearby bar an hour before the accident. “I have no news from my friends; I haven’t heard from any of them,” she tearfully told CTV. “I can’t say more than that. We’re waiting for confirmation.”

Families and friends are scrambling to find the missing. More than 17,000 people have joined a Facebook page to help people connect with their loved ones in the town. Multiple posts ask about Guy Bolduc, a singer who was performing at Musi-Cafe. “All of his fans, all over Quebec, but also his fellow singers (of whom I am one) hope to see him again alive!!! Come on my GuyBol, come out of your hiding place,” one member wrote.

Enormous loss

Residents struggled to absorb what had happened to their small lakeside community. “It’s dreadful,” Claude Bedard told CBC. “It’s terrible. The Metro store, Dollarama, everything that was there is gone.” Authorities evacuated more than a third of the town of 6,000 people, most from the center of Lac-Megantic and a home for the elderly. Amanda Gabrielle said the train crashed on her birthday. She lost her dog and her home, and doesn’t have any family or friends nearby. “I lost everything,” Gabrielle told the CBC. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”

Lac-Mégantic: Environmental impact impossible to predict by Adam Kovac, July 7, 2013, The Montreal Gazette
As the human toll of the explosion in Lac-Mégantic remains uncertain, so too does the environmental impact. While Urgence Québec has confirmed that both the town’s namesake lake and the Chaudière River have been contaminated, an assessment of the impact isn’t possible without knowing what type of oil the 72-car train was carrying to an Irving refinery in Saint John, N.B., said Steven Guilbeault, co-founder and deputy director of environmental group Équiterre. “We suspect that the oil is coming from North Dakota, and that would means it’s shale oil,” he said. “It’s not the oil people are used to. Beyond that, (it’s a question of whether) it’s light crude or heavy crude. … Depending on the type of crude oil, the environmental impacts, safety issues, decontamination issues are very different because of what’s in the oil.” Shale oil, which is retrieved through a controversial process known as fracking, tends to be light oil, according to Keith Stewart, an environmental researcher who works with Greenpeace Canada. But even in that classification, there can be large differences in the chemical makeup, including the levels of toxic compounds. Light oil also burns quicker than heavy oil. … Complicating the cleanup is that permanent damage is best prevented if cleanup operations are initiated soon after a spill. Because of the fire that has engulfed the town, emergency workers would have been unable to begin until it was safe to do so, Stewart said. “Particularly when it’s crude or any petroleum product, there’s a risk of fire and explosions, and when this stuff burns it releases a lot of toxic chemicals, which have a big impact in the short term,” he said. “The longer term impacts are effects on water and on soil, which are hard to clean up, and normally you want to clean them up as soon as possible to reduce damage.” Aside from the chemical components, the extant of the damage will also depend on how much oil has seeped into water and soil in the area, Guilbeault noted. … “Typically what they have to do is try to scoop it up out of the water and dig up the soil that’s been contaminated and they can never get all of it. It gets into the ecosystem, it gets into the water, it gets into the soil. Depending on the amount of oil spilled, the effects can be big, and they can mitigate the damage but not get rid of them entirely.”

Those effects can include contamination of drinking water. Urgence Québec has issued an advisory to the area to boil water for five minutes, though there is at this time no sign that the drinking-water source, unlike Lac Mégantic and the Chaudière River, has been contaminated. Concerns over an environmental disaster have followed a recent boom in rail-transported oil that has taken place over the last five years. Meaghan LaSala is a member of 350 Maine, a group based in that state that raises awareness for climate change. On June 27, the group blockaded a railway passing through Fairfield, Me., that, similar to the line passing through Lac-Mégantic, carried crude oil to the Irving refinery. “We wanted to call attention to the safety risk that we believe transporting this stuff by rail posed, which now, devastatingly and tragically, has been shown to be a real concern,” said LaSala. “We know that the rails are not properly maintained,” she added. “The pressure to transport this stuff, because of the oil boom that has been taking place in the last few years, has really exceeded the infrastructure that exists to transport it safely.” [Emphasis added]

Could be years before missing 40 are identified by Catherine Solyom, July 7, 2013, The Montreal Gazette
Given the intensity of the fire and the heat — which razed 30 buildings and, according to some witnesses, could be felt kilometres away — it’s possible people were completely vapourized in the explosions, said Geneviève Guilbault, a spokesperson for the Quebec coroner’s office who was on site Sunday. “We can deduce that many of the bodies are severely burned,” Guilbault said. “That complicates identification, but all necessary means at our disposal will be used to identify them.” She said the five bodies recovered so far will be sent to Montreal for forensic identification. But it’s possible some of the bodies will never be found. “Right now, we’re working on those we are able to recover,” Guilbault said. It is a long, grim process.

Identifying human remains from a disaster site typically means getting as much information from the families of the missing individuals as possible: dental records, X-rays, photographs or descriptions of tattoos, clothing and jewelry, as well as blood-type information and objects that might contain the deceased’s DNA, such as hair or a toothbrush. Forensic anthropologists working with fire investigators can help differentiate human remains from other components of the debris. Then the remains are compared with the biographical information and DNA to try to find a match. Kathy Reichs, a best-selling author and forensic anthropologist who works at the Quebec government’s Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale, said the central forensic lab in Montreal was put on notice to expect multiple deaths from Lac-Mégantic. She said it would probably be a very difficult task to recover human remains from the debris, given the intensity and duration of the fire. “Anyone caught in that, the remains will be extremely compromised,” Reichs said. “Primarily, they will try to go with dental IDs — it’s so hard to say unless you know what they’re going to recover. But a fire that burned that hot and that long, it’s pretty devastating.” … In Lac-Mégantic, townfolk are still holding out hope their missing loved ones will be found alive.

Relatives have little hope for those missing in Quebec explosion, fire
by Verity Stephenson and Sophie Cousineau, July 7, 2013, The Globe and Mail
Raymond Lafontaine, president of a local construction company, believes his son Gaëtan Lafontaine and his daughter-in-law Karine died in the explosion. He criticized officials for allowing the rail line in the centre of the town. “They have been running petroleum trains through our town for the past two years. It’s criminal,” said Lafontaine, who spoke Sunday in front of the high school Polyvalente Montigniac, which is currently serving as the town’s main shelter.

Others described a surreal scene. “I slept in my car last night. I didn’t know if I’d sleep well inside [the high school]. We’re pretty much cut off from reality,” said Sylvain Tessier. Red Cross spokesperson Myrianne Marotte said that 163 people stayed overnight at the school. Despite the horrific situation, morale is high, she said. Family members of the missing milled about the school Sunday. “We think my uncle was at Musi-Café (near the scene of the explosion) when it happened,” Joannie Bouhard, a young woman from Lennoxville, Que., who came to the town Saturday evening to support her family said. “And besides, his appartment is right above. My grandmother was lucky. She was staying with him, but they got into a fight and she left. So, she’s safe, but we haven’t heard from him.” … Relatives in the tourist town of 6,000 full-time residents were already starting to grieve. At a community centre, Jacques Bolduc and Solange Gaudreault emerged after providing a DNA sample to potentially identify their son, Guy Bolduc, a 23-year-old singer who was performing at the bar. “Our boy wanted so much to live,” Mr. Bolduc told Radio-Canada. “The police told us there is no hope. The train exploded 30 feet from the (Musi-Café) bar.” … Bernard Théberge, 44, a cook who lives on the outskirts of Lac-Mégantic, was out with his friends at the Musi-Café, one of the most popular hangouts in town and the last known whereabouts of many of the missing. The Musi-Café is a few metres from where the tracks cross Frontenac Street, Lac-Mégantic’s main street. Mr. Théberge was on the outside patio in front of the café smoking a cigarette when the derailment happened. He heard the train coming and knew right away that something was wrong. “It was going way too fast,” said Mr. Théberge. “I saw a wall of fire go up. People got up on the outside patio. I grabbed my bike, which was just on the railing of the terrasse. I started pedaling and then I stopped and turned around. I saw that there were all those people inside and I knew right away that it would be impossible for them to get out. Mr. Théberge said he tried to help people escape “but there was just fire everywhere.” “I just pedaled away, but I know a lot of people didn’t make it out. There were maybe 60 people inside. “This is a first. Smoking saved my life,” he said with a voice raspy from the heat and smoke. His right arm was bandaged for the second-degree burns. [Emphasis added]

Editorial: Lac-Mégantic tragedy sheds light on policy areas that need reviewing by The Montreal Gazette, July 7, 2013
For one thing, it’s unsettling to learn that the train in question was left unattended on the tracks outside of the town, its parking brakes supposedly secure, after one conductor left for the night and before another arrived to take over. That sort of staffing gap, permissible under existing regulations, is fine with airplanes, as airplanes are parked in airports, which are secure environments. It’s different with trains on unguarded rail tracks. As it turns out, a fire broke out in one of the train’s locomotives five minutes after the conductor had left. While the local fire department says it extinguished the blaze and left, there was still no replacement conductor on board when the train started drifting toward town, with the first explosion downtown coming at 1:15 a.m. A more simultaneous shift change with conductors might well have averted this whole tragedy. [Emphasis added]

Five die, 40 missing after Canadian freight train disaster by Reuters, July 7, 2013
“That’s the first thing I would think of: did someone release all the brakes?” asked Gary Landrio, a Warren, Pennsylvania, railroad consultant with 37 years of industry experience. “In my experience, a train doesn’t just simply let itself go down the hill into a town. There’s usually a cause behind it.”

The disaster will focus attention on the merits of TransCanada Corp’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the Texas coast, a project U.S. President Barack Obama is considering whether to approve.¸”On the face of it this should be a boost for pipeline solutions, especially given the improvements in pipeline technology over the past five decades,” said Ed Morse, managing director of commodity research at Citi Group. Proponents of Keystone XL, which environmentalists strongly oppose on the grounds that extracting crude from the tar sands generates more greenhouse gas emissions than regular drilling, say shipping oil by pipeline is safer than using rail cars.

Five die, 40 missing after Canadian freight train disaster by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; additional reporting by Scott Haggett in Calgary and Cazary Podkul in New York; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Bill Trott and Stacey Joyce , July 7, 2013, Reuters
The train was hauling crude in 72 tanker cars from North Dakota to eastern Canada. It was parked, without a driver, but then it rolled downhill, gathered speed and derailed on a curve in the small town of Lac-Megantic at 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Saturday. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, which owns the line, said it was still investigating the cause of the accident, but offered one possible explanation of how the air brakes on the locomotive holding the train in position could have been released. The firm said the release might be linked to how the locomotive was shut down when the train was parked at Nantes Station, about 12 km (8 miles) west of Lac-Megantic, on Friday night. It said the locomotive was shut down after the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, near Montreal, but did not elaborate. … Police spokesman Michel Brunet said about 40 people were missing after the derailment. “There could be more, there could be less,” he said. Few residents expected any of the missing to be found, given the devastation. A company statement on Sunday said “the locomotive of the oil train parked at Nantes station was shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer … which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place.” It did not give a more detailed explanation. Nantes Mayor Sylvain Gilbert told local radio that town firefighters had dealt with a fire on the train on Friday night, but gave no further details. It was not clear whether the fire was connected to the derailment. Police said they were investigating the disaster, and would talk to everyone involved. “Every time the Surete (Quebec police) needs to investigate, we need to rule out any foul play,” Quebec police spokesman Benoit Richard told reporters. “Right now, we cannot say it is a criminal act. We can only say we are looking at it as if it was.” … Very few people were treated in hospitals, indicating those caught in the blast had either escaped or died. “It is a black-and-white situation,” Quebec Health Minister Rejean Hebert told reporters.

On Sunday, white vapor rose from the town center, which police have cordoned off. Photos showed shattered buildings, burning piles of rubble and stumps of burned trees. Lac-Megantic, a town of 6,000 on the edge of a deep blue lake and ringed by forests of pine and birch, is in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, about 160 miles east of Montreal and close to the border with Maine and Vermont. About a kilometer away from the train’s wreckage, water along the lake’s edge had a sheen and the rocks appeared oily. Emergency crews had placed booms in the water near the explosion site to prevent oil from drifting. About 150 firefighters, some from the United States, spent most of Saturday spraying cold water from the lake on five tanker cars they said still posed a serious risk of exploding. … The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line carried an average of about 16,500 barrels per day of crude in the first four months of this year, 10 times more than a year before, according to data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “On the face of it, this should be a boost for pipeline solutions, especially given the improvements in pipeline technology over the past five decades,” said Ed Morse, managing director of commodity research at Citi Group. But he said it was too early to draw conclusions. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic owns some 510 miles of track in Maine and Vermont in the United States and in Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada.

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